The summertime drive from overheated Redding to the refreshing waters of the Trinity River and the Pacific Ocean may be easier in a few years, but vacationers might have to share the highway with more big rigs.
The next round of improvements to the Buckhorn Grade on Highway 299 west of Redding is scheduled to begin in September. The work composes the second phase in a four-phase project that is intended both to make the treacherous stretch of road safer and to open the highway between Redding and Arcata to larger trucks.
Earlier this month, Caltrans awarded a $10.5 million contract to Mercer Fraser of Eureka for the “Middle Buckhorn” project. It involves widening the highway, realigning 10 turns and eliminating seven other turns in a 1.8-mile stretch. Mercer Fraser will only be able to remove timber that was cut earlier this year and install erosion control measures before having to button up the site for the winter, according to Caltrans spokeswoman Denise Yergenson. The heavy construction work will begin in spring of 2012, she said.
The twisty, steep and relatively narrow Buckhorn Grade has been notorious for years and has a history of serious vehicle collisions. The approximately seven-mile stretch rises about 2,000 feet from Clear Creek to Buckhorn Summit at the Shasta-Trinity county line. Snow and ice are not uncommon during the winter.
Two years ago, Caltrans completed improvements to sections at the base and top of the grade. The section at the top provides an example of what the entire Buckhorn Grade will be like when finished – two westbound climbing lanes, one eastbound descending lane, a four-foot-wide median and broad shoulders, explained Chris Harvey, project manager for Caltrans.
The grade’s design speed will increase from the current 25 mph to 40 mph, with stretches of 55 mph highway.
“It will have fewer turns and longer straights, with more passing opportunities,” Harvey summarized.
After completion of the Middle Buckhorn project, scheduled for fall of 2012, Caltrans will begin realigning two hairpin turns in the Twin Gulches section below Middle Buckhorn. In subsequent years, Caltrans will tackle the relatively mild lower section and the Upper Buckhorn.
“We’re kind of anticipating being done with the corridor in 2017,” Harvey said.
The overall project has two goals: Decrease the number and severity of crashes, and make the highway compatible with the federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act. Currently, big rigs with a standard 53-foot-long trailer are not permitted on Buckhorn Grade because the tight turns do not comply with the STAA. The truck restriction will be lifted once the full project is complete.
Highway 299 provides the most direct route between the northern Sacramento Valley and the North Coast. Because the highway is a vital link, Humboldt County views the Buckhorn Grade improvements “as an interregional project,” said Marcella Clem, executive director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments.
Currently, freight coming and going to Eureka and its deep water shipping port must either travel north-south on Highway 101, or travel east-west on smaller trucks traversing Highway 299, Clem said. Providing better truck access between Eureka and Redding should have economic benefits, she said, noting that a couple short sections of the highway in Humboldt County could also use improvements.
Brad Theurich, safety and compliance manager at Redding-based trucking company RLT, predicted truck traffic would increase once Caltrans finishes the Buckhorn Grade work and the state eliminates existing restrictions. Two-thirds of the rigs in RLT’s fleet, he noted, are too large to use the highway west of Redding.
“Right now, we have to go all the way down to (Highway) 20 in Williams and cut across, or go up to Oregon and work our way over to the coast,” Theurich said. Another alternative for RLT and other trucking companies is to use smaller trucks to pick up freight in Eureka, haul to Redding, and then transfer the cargo to larger trucks.
“This could change some of our business strategy a little bit,” Theurich said of the 299 improvements. “We wouldn’t have to send a smaller truck to do a bigger truck’s job.”
The project could also impact another sector of RLT’s operation – it’s big-rig towing service. “We do a lot of business on 299. A lot of trucks don’t navigate that highway so well. It’s a tight road,” Theurich said.
The new route for the Middle Buckhorn project has been evident since February, when Caltrans and CalFire crews felled trees in the planned construction zone. Crews cut the trees prior to bird nesting season in order to prevent later construction delays, according to Harvey.
Once highway construction resumes, motorists will need to get accustomed to 15- to 20-minute delays during daylight hours on weekdays. However, unlike the projects of 2009 that had three traffic control points, the Middle Buckhorn work should require only one stopping point, Harvey said.
Caltrans’ Redding-based District 2 has the $15 million in hand for the Middle Buckhorn project, and future phases are included in the state’s transportation funding program, Yergenson said.
Paul Shigley is a freelance journalist based in Western Shasta County, CA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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